SOMETIMES YOU CAN trace it all back to one little thoughtless moment, like when my wife ended up in the ER because I handed one of my boys two left mittens.
I’ll tell you that one some other time.
Since December, I’ve been training toward April 1, the Cranbury 200K, a flat course that kicks off the New Jersey Randonneurs’ season. With the exception of a weekly ride with my kids to the greenmarket, where we buy kale that I throw away four days later, pretty much all my bike time since 2011 has been geared toward bending this body closer to the fitness level it had when I completed my Super Randonneur series in 2010. (An SR series is a 200K, a 300K, a 400K, and a 600K in a calendar year.)
April 1. That was the target, and I had a lot of fitness to regain, having lost all of it. So I made my first-ever New Year’s resolution (“Enjoy suffering”), and went out and looked for the steepest climbs within 15 miles of the George Washington Bridge and did hill repeats on them most Sundays. I logged my meals and exercise at loseit.com and dropped 20 pounds, 30 of which was fat. I now fit into that one pair of shorts I’d never gotten closed because the button’s sewn in the wrong place.
I upped my commute to about 24 miles/day (my folding bike’s pannier has a laptop pouch, so I ride to Starbucks in upstate towns and work there) and did as much smart stuff as I could think of: Rode a new saddle for a few weeks before trusting it on a brevet, slimmed down the contents of my saddlebag, replaced the pedals that broke a week before the big ride (okay, that wasn’t so much smart as lucky), replaced the cassette along with the chain, finally installed the cadence sensor that came with the computer and paid attention to it, weighed myself before and after long rides, experimented with different bike nutrition before relying on it… The stuff you’re supposed to do. I did it.
(There’s one variable I didn’t mention. If you didn’t catch it, hold on—it’ll show up shortly.)
So I rode somewhere around 1500 miles between December and April, and by mid-March, my recovery time after climbing the steep little hills in Clifton and Cresskill was shorter than coasting halfway back down.
I wasn’t sure I was ready, but I thought I might be. I just needed a brevet to prove it.
The evening of March 31, I took the train to Princeton Junction and rode to a Staybridge hotel in West Windsor, where I got the next day’s breakfast and took it to my room (free breakfast wouldn’t be available the next morning until after I was already riding), carbed up on delivery food, laid out all my clothes, and went to sleep at 9pm.
Leg cramps all night. That was new. Who knows. Whatever. Enjoy suffering.
THE IPHONE ALARM went off at 5am, and with two hours to go before an event start 0.6 miles away, I had the most leisurely pre-brevet morning ever. Checked my heart rate (slightly elevated), ate breakfast (Raisin Bran), filled bike bottles (water, Perpetuem, hot tea), double-checked the bike (orange), donned the gear (reflective vests are unattractive) and left the hotel in good trim.
All brevet starts are the same: People clacking and crunching around in the gray, recognizing each other by their bicycles, getting checked in by volunteers. My last check-in was on April 3, 2011, on this very same ride, and it ended in a DNF by minutes. It felt good to have prepared so thoroughly for the rematch. I had a little buzz of adrenaline going, but I also felt loose, and the pre-ride BSing with other riders was cheering. I’d missed it.
At 7am nobody had released the pack onto the course, so a couple of us slowly rolled forward, and then rolled back around when somebody yelled at us to hold up. I stopped on the gravel to listen to the safety speech, which was shorter than usual (“Bye!”), and then waited for all the other bikes to roll out before standing on the pedals to follow. When I pushed forward, my front wheel squished and wallowed.
I’d flatted at Mile Zero.
“No tread on this tire,” said Jud, who held the bike upright while I put a new tube in. “So it’s hard to see wear.” He meant the tires weren’t designed with any tread pattern—they were smooth when they came out of the box. So there’s no obvious way to check how much you’ve got left.
I’ve ridden the same model tire to Albany and back with the fabric showing, so I was puzzled. “But it’s not worn through,” I said. I ran my hand around the inside to find the glass or nail or whatever, but I couldn’t find anything. When the new tube was on and I pumped it up, it bulged out between the rim and tire, near the valve stem. I swore and deflated it.
I was carrying two tubes. No time to figure this out—everyone’s gone and the clock is ticking. Just put the other one on.
The other one did the same thing.
So it’s not the tube. It’s either the tire or the rim. Probably the tire. Maybe a weak spot. I rotated the tire to move the hypothetical flaw away from the stem and pumped it up again.
It held. I discarded the two used tubes (because now I couldn’t tell which one was punctured) and left 26 minutes behind everyone else. Hopefully it would keep holding, since I no longer had a spare tube, but I still had a patch kit, if worse came to worst.
WORST IS LOCATED eight miles East of Cranbury, New Jersey, at the top of a small, steep climb. It is subtitled “Waiting for glue to dry,” and looks like this:
Laurent drove up after I had the rim off, the tube out, the puncture sanded, and the glue applied. I was now almost an hour behind the group, and I’ve never had any faith in glue and patches. Or anyway, in my ability to apply them.
“I don’t think you’ll be making it to the next controle,” he said.
“Could be,” I said. “We’ll see.”
We looked at the glue drying, and he took off for the next place he had to be.
IN 2010, THERE was a guy who’d show up for brevets unprepared. He’d apparently been a long-distance rider during an earlier part of his life, and he was back trying to do it again. But he kept having flats, bike problems, or just not enough legs. I had to leave him behind on one ride, which I still feel bad about. As I waited for the glue to get tacky, I broke out the Park Tool tire boots I’ve been carrying around for years—basically just plastic cards with a little gummy adhesive on them; if you don’t have one, you can use a dollar bill or a MetroCard—and tried to feel graceful about being that guy this year.
The tire still just didn’t look that bad to me, but I found the three worst little nicks in the rubber and applied the three boots to the inside of the tire. It’s not like it could hurt.
In one of the little nicks was a tiny triangle of glass you couldn’t feel from the inside. Could be.
When the glue was tacky, I pressed the patch on, put everything back together, gave the tube the remaining contents of one of my CO2 cartridges, and mounted up again.
It felt soft and a little squirmy, but one minute later, it had not blown.
Two minutes later, it still felt soft, but it still wasn’t wallowing. It was holding.
OK, bike, I thought at it. You do your part, I’ll do mine, and hit the gas.
IF YOU IMAGINE that the starting line is an actual stripe across the road, and you imagine it moving forward through the course at 9.3 miles per hour, that’s the line you have to beat to each controle. You can stop all you want, eat, take pictures, sleep, fix a flat, weld a frame, have an affair—but the stripe keeps moving.
ONE OF THE rules I believe in most, which is also one that I find hardest to observe, is whatever actions you take after something goes to hell and you have to save the situation? Take those actions from the very beginning instead, before anything’s wrong. Saddle sores near the end make you slather on the Lantiseptic and stand out of the saddle religiously for half of every climb? Slather and stand from the beginning. Low bank balance means you can’t order dinner when you’re exhausted? Have eggs for dinner earlier in the month.
It’s really hard. I can’t think of a more difficult discipline when there’s no crisis. It’s my own rule, and I suck at it most of the time.
Once you’ve got the crisis, though, the focus comes all by itself. I had a puncture with a patch thumbed onto it; a tire with unknown issues, exactly; zero spare tubes; and maybe 65 pounds of pressure in a tire I usually pump to 110.
After hitting the gas, tire placement was #2 on the priority list. Don’t put it in glass, in potholes, in gravel where the sheet metal screws hunger for rubber, in serrated rough patches, in gaping Friday afternoon roadwork. Just keep it out of bad neighborhoods generally, and speak extra nicely to it. Compliments don’t hurt, either.
Number 3 on the priority list was don’t quite give it all the gas. If I made it to Controle 2 by 10:16am, I’d still have to last all the way to Controle 5 by 8:30pm. So burn it—but don’t floor it. And keep doing regular updates of your mental rando math:
I’ll get us there, bike. Just do your part.
The tire stayed soft, but it held, and I got to Controle 2, a Burger King, at 10:10am. Six minutes to spare. For the first time since last April, I was ahead of the moving stripe.
I was back on the road in a few minutes: No time to eat, rest, pee. Water in the bottles, tire pressure up to 100, and out of there.
It flatted again near mile 37, just above the closed amusement park, when I banked left over rough pavement. I got the wheel off and the tube out in about a minute, but I’d never dug this far into my last-ditch supplies before, and it turned out the last CO2 cartridge was threadless. Maybe there’s a trick to make that work in a threaded nozzle, but I don’t know it. I was out.
Well, except for the six-mile walk to the Sports Authority in Hazlet, in cleats, and then the train home.
SO NOW, LIKE any decent protagonist, I have a nemesis born of my own shortcomings. Cranbury 200K, flattest and easiest of all NJ Randonneurs’ rides, I will defeat you when April comes again to New Jersey, on a Sunday gravid with portent, in 2013, the year of reckoning.
AT FIRST, I blamed the tire. It’s what blew, after all. But here’s the thing about that: It gave me no trouble at all before this. None. All through winter, all through last year, not a problem was to be had. Up hills, down hills, over bad terrain and thorns and gravel paths where road bikes generally don’t go, it did not puncture.
So that’s not where the problem was.
And it wasn’t the threadless CO2 cartridge, either; that was my last-ditch backup, and things should never have gotten as far as the last ditch.
Somewhere in the system—somewhere else—a variable changed.
ON ALL MY brevets, I take a small bottle of sake along in my saddlebag. I don’t know why; too many viewings of The Seven Samurai, probably. But that’s my habit. A day or two before the event, I’ll ride down to Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater and pick up a 300-milliliter bottle of cold sake—I like the light, dry ones—which I’ll drink when the brevet is over. Sometimes’s it’s my celebration, other times it’s my solace, but that’s my little tradition.
This year, I couldn’t get down to Mitsuwa Marketplace, but I had half a large bottle in the fridge, so I poured it into that purple Nalgene container in the saddlebag picture and took it along like that.
Never change anything the day of a brevet—I know that. And yet, there it is. I screwed up. And not only that, but it was a honjozo-shu, not my usual junmai daiginjo. So two changes.
I’ve tried to avoid this conclusion, but to quote Sherlock Holmes: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
(I figured this out last night—while drinking the sake, coincidentally.)
So now I’ve found another flat 200K I want to do next week. It’s not a brevet, but a “permanent,” which means it won’t count toward an SR series, but it would be enough to restore my honor.
I have learned my lesson. There will be no Nalgene bottle of sake along this time.
Sorry, tire. I should never have doubted you. We’re good.